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"Trumbo," now on stage at The Westside Theatre, is a strong reminder of a shameful period in American history -- and a cautionary tale as well. Specifically, it is a reading of Dalton Trumbo's letters (based on a published collection), thus serving to profile one hero of the 1950s McCarthy era.

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten who defied the House Un-American Activities, refusing to inform on colleagues. As a result, he was cast out by Hollywood and also served prison time, thus losing both recognition and income. But he would go on to write under assumed names, winning an Oscar for "The Brave One" as author Robert Rich. Blacklisted until 1960, Trumbo came into his own when Kirk Douglas demanded that he be given proper screenwriting credit for "Spartacus."

Trumbo's son Christopher Trumbo has taken the letters and interspersed them with narrative commentary. The letters themselves reveal Trumbo's remarkable command of language, vast vocabulary, and ability to convey a range of passions. And indeed, in years to come, it may be the letters, not the films, for which Trumbo will be remembered.

To the credit of director Peter Askin, "Trumbo" is staged with severe simplicity. The actor sits at a desk, highlighted by stark lighting, with occasional slides and videos to underscore the story. Nothing interferes with the power of the material itself.

Nathan Lane portrays Trumbo, with a second actor Gordon MacDonald ably playing other roles. Mostly Lane shows uncharacteristic, admirable restraint as Trumbo, and he reads the letters with an easy fluency. But when he launches into an hilarious letter to Trumbo's son at college, all the Nathan Lane quirks -- the sly smiles, the raised eyebrows -- appear. Then, unfortunately, we are faced with Max Bialystock.

The intention is for different actors to step into the role of Trumbo for limited runs in this open-end engagement. F. Murray Abraham takes it on from Sept. 23-Oct. 5, and Brian Dennehy from Oct. 14-Nov.9. Other casting remains to be announced.

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